Holocaust Remembrance Day Tells Us Why Israel Must Help Yarmouk – and Why It Won't

If, as prime minister, you can turn a blind eye to survivors' suffering, and worse, turn their pain, their memories, their Holocaust, to your own political advantage over Iran - there is no limit to what you can let die of neglect.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Women sit on the floor of a school at Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, April 12, 2015.
Women sit on the floor of a school at Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, April 12, 2015.Credit: AP
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

This week on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Israel honors the sacrifice and heroism of millions of people. Their personal tragedies and unimaginable suffering are a lesson for all of humanity in the monstrous potential consequences of racism, of nationalism gone malignant, and, above all, of indifference.

On second thought – and it truly pains me to write this – perhaps "honors" is the wrong word.

Two days before the Wednesday night opening of Yom Hashoah commemorations, the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel published research showing that of the less-than 200,000 Holocaust survivors still alive in Israel, one of four lives below the poverty line, and was unable to heat their homes this winter. In an alarming rise, 30 percent of survivors said that they had forgone buying food items for lack of money, and a quarter said they were unable to buy medications for the same reason.

Also this week, it emerged that at least $300 million which could be used to help feed, care for and perform critical house repairs for Holocaust survivors is locked away behind an opaque web of para-governmental bureaucracies and long-obsolete organizations with names like the Jewish Colonial Trust.

None of this – nor the finding that 74 percent of Israelis believe the government has not treated survivors well – has kept incumbents from crowing about how good we all have it here, and winning re-election.

This, it turns out, is the real lesson our leaders have learned from all of this.

No one knows this better than Benjamin Netanyahu. As Israeli political analyst Mazal Mualem has noted in an essay on poverty among survivors, the "Social Security payments they receive are absorbed by the steep cost of living and cuts to pensions, implemented by none other than Netanyahu, as part of the economic decrees he devised as finance minister in 2003."

In the last couple of years, spurred by then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid, himself the son of a survivor, there has been some improvement in benefits for survivors. But for the great majority, the change has come much, much too late.

In a moral sense, the treatment – and ill-treatment – of Holocaust survivors are the acid test, the canaries in the coal mine of the Netanyahu government. In practice, however

If, as a leader of Israel, you can turn a blind eye to the suffering of needy, ailing, hungry, aged Holocaust survivors – worse, if as the prime minister does daily, you can do that and turn their pain, their memories, their Holocaust, to your own political advantage in relentless, Shoah-inflected, redirected close-up on Iran – there is no limit to what you can exploit, or ignore, or let die of neglect.

The examples are legion. You can, for instance, choose to look the other way and exempt Israel from taking initiative in helping alleviate the severe housing, sanitation, energy, water and health needs of the people of the war-ruined Gaza Strip. This, despite assessments by Israeli generals and other experts that helping rehabilitate and rebuild the Strip is the best way to distance a new war.

Or, perhaps most pointedly, you can choose to refrain from helping the victims of a horrible, ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Syria's Yarmouk refugee camp.

You've done a fine job so far. As you always do, you've attached terms and conditions that made help from Israel impossible.

You could have worked with the Palestinian Authority to allow refugees to safely enter and resettle in the West Bank. You could have given them aid, medical care, a practical expression of concern.

But you did not. And if past performance is an indicator of future deed, you will not. Instead, you will stand there on Yom Hashoah, before a large audience of freezing Holocaust survivors, and give your annual campaign speech about Iran.

And then, a week later, with aged, infirm and hungry Nakba survivors barely clinging to life in Yarmouk, you will give your "Fallen Soldiers" Memorial Day campaign speech about Iran, and, the next day, your Independence Day campaign speech about Iran.

And every day, 40 more Holocaust survivors will no longer need your help. Because they will have died.

And every day, an unknown number of people in Yarmouk will no longer need your help. Because they will have died as well, either gunned down by the oversize rounds of an ISIS machine gun, or dead of untreated illness or unrelieved starvation by Assad's siege.

You won. You can do anything you want. Or you can just do what you do – campaigning on and on, equating the Holocaust with Iran - while doing nothing about the individual horrors happening right now to survivors who – by the end of the time it takes to read this sentence – will no longer be survivors.

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